Everyone in Beijing seems to have a smartphone. They're great for chatting with friends and catching up on the news. I use my smartphone to navigate through this huge city where I don't understand the language. What's the future of mobile technology, both in China, and the rest of the world?
Last week I had the opportunity to attend the Global Mobile Internet Conference in Beijing. The GMIC is one of the world's largest mobile technology conferences, with over 400 speakers and 30,000 people in attendance. The conference was held in the China National Convention Center (CNCC), next to the “Bird's Nest” stadium that was made famous during the 2008 Olympics.
On the first day of the convention, I arrived early and picked up my press pass. Later I met my friend Rucky from Thailand and we toured the facilities. The first floor had a huge exhibition, with dozens of companies giving demonstrations of their latest products. Two common themes I noticed were drones and cloud computing. The drones especially got my interest; I have seen cheap models for sale in street markets in several Chinese cities. Will more sophisticated drones become commodities in the near future?
More Photos From the Exhibition
Cool as the exhibits were, Rucky and I were really there for the conference. We headed to the Thought Leader room, packed with hundreds of attendees, for the first presentations of the day. We were not disappointed. Three huge screens were set up, giving everyone in the room a larger-than-life view of the speakers. The epic opening theme talked about revolutionizing the planet with mobile technology. A live band was even set up to play between presentations.
The lead singer.
The speakers themselves were nothing short of fantastic.
Here are the highlights from some of talks I attended. Note that most of the presenters spoke in Chinese, so I only received a rough English translation through a radio earpiece. In other words, this is a summary, not a transcript.
Jing Long Zhou
Jing Long Zhou discussed how mobile technology is changing the world. The majority of people in developing nations exclusively use their smart phones to access the internet. They have bypassed the desktop altogether. Mr. Zhou emphasized that mobile internet access is improving people's lives around the world. He gave an energetic opening speech that got me excited to see the developments in the pipeline from the world's biggest technology companies.
Internet Society of China
The Internet Society of China (ISC) is a non-governmental organization that promotes the development of China's internet. The Society has more than 400 members, which include some of the biggest organizations operating in China, such as Baidu, Yahoo and Microsoft.
Gao Xinmin, ISC's vice president, talked about the importance of mobile internet in China. Over 800 million people in the country have internet access, and most of them use mobile devices. This number may seem staggering, but with a population of 1.35 billion, there are still a lot of people without access. This number is certain to grow in the next few years.
Mr. Xinmin also talked about Internet+ (Internet Plus), a new government policy to integrate the internet with modern manufacturing. As industrial production slows in China, a move toward the mobile internet economy will drive future economic growth.
This Forbes article has more information on Internet+.
Founder & CEO
Wen Chu interviewed Bin Lin to get his thoughts on Xiaomi. The company is the third largest smartphone manufacturer in the world, trailing only Samsung and Apple. Xiaomi sold 61 million units last year, and is expected to sell 80-100 million units in 2015. During the interview, Mr. Lin showed off his company's newest flagship phone, available soon.
According to Mr. Lin, one of Xiaomi's biggest challenges is keeping up with demand. The company has plans to expand into India. They recently received a large investment from Tata, a conglomerate that was founded in 1868 and earned $103 billion in revenue last year.
Mr. Lin repeatedly asked the audience, “Are you OK?” Apparently, this was an inside joke referencing a recent speech given by the company's CEO. Joke or not, for Xiaomi, the answer is an emphatic “yes.”
George Zhao made one of the most interesting remarks I heard at the GMIC. It was translated roughly as, “Pigs can fly in the wind, but when the wind stops blowing, they all fall. We need to be birds instead.”
This may have been a poor translation, or maybe it relates to a Chinese proverb that I'm unaware of. But at any rate, I took this as a commentary on innovation. Mr. Zhao showed a photograph of a pub he visited in Dusseldorf, Germany that was 380 years old. Napoleon supposedly ate there. It was still in good condition, and it was still doing good business. A place of such high quality doesn't need to innovate. But cellphone manufacturers are not German pubs.
Mr. Zhao praised Steve Jobs but criticized Apple. He said that the iPhone 6 has a big screen, but nothing else in the way of innovation. He was especially critical of the iPhone's short battery life.
According to Mr. Zhao (again, this could be a poor translation), Huawei is like a stupid bird. They don't wait for the wind to fly. People want a high-quality phone with a long battery life. A phone that will survive a drop from 1.8 meters.
Of course, Mr. Zhao had a solution: the Huawei Honor. It feels like silk and comes with a 3600 mAh battery, which should last two days under normal use. Its dual 8MP cameras and 3GB of RAM are competitive with other modern phones.
But most impressive was the price. When Mr. Zhao and a colleague from Alibaba announced that the phone will cost 799 - 999 rmb ($129 - $161), the audience gasped. For comparison, the iPhone 6 costs around 6000 rmb in China. At this price point, millions of Chinese consumers will be able to buy their first smartphones.
After watching Mr. Zhao's presentation, I could feel the energy in the crowd. He did a great job getting people interested in his company's products.
Matt Grob began his speech with some mind-boggling statistics: 86% of people accessing the internet in China do so on a mobile device. Last year, 100 million people in China used the internet for the first time. By 2020, 25-50 billion devices will be connected worldwide.
Mr. Grob then laid out some of Qualcomm's priorities. Higher bandwidths clearly will be needed in the near future. To alleviate the bandwidth dilemma, his company has created technology to aggregate carriers, yielding up to three times faster download speeds. Security is also a priority. Qualcomm's next-generation fingerprint reader will do a better job at identifying users, even when they have sweat or oil on their fingers. Another priority is adding proximate services to automobiles. Cars will become more connected, allowing them to warn each another of upcoming hazards.
Finally, Mr. Grob showed off his company's new Zeroth technology. In an amazing live demo, he put several pictures in front of a video camera, and a computer gave a description of the images. It was fast and accurate. This was one of the most impressive demos I saw at GMIC.
As this technology matures, I think it could render QR codes obsolete. Imagine pointing your phone's camera at anything and immediately getting information about it. It could even be applied to autonomous cars. All sorts of breakthroughs could come from this sort of AI.
Mark Ren of Tencent talked quite a bit about wearables, specifically smart watches. The biggest disadvantage with most smart watches is that they have limited functionality when not in range of a smartphone. Tencent will soon release an operating system to be used in many types of devices connected to the internet. When implemented in a watch, users will be able to go for a jog, order a taxi, reserve a table at a restaurant and check in for a flight, all without being connected to a separate device.
Tencent owns some of the biggest social networks in China, including QQ and WeChat, so this operating system could make a huge impact on wearable technology, if it gains industry acceptance.
Hiroshi Ishiguro was one of the most famous presenters at the conference. The professor from Osaka University in Japan has focused much of his career on robotics. Specifically, he wants to build a robot that is indistinguishable from a human being. At this year's GMIC, he introduced his latest android (Yang Song), who stood next to her human counterpart. The robot gave a long speech in Mandarin, swiveling her torso and gesturing with her arms the whole time.
Unfortunately, this android didn't come anywhere near convincing the audience that she was, in fact, human. Her movements were, well, robotic. She was slow to respond to commands. When a human who was standing next to her offered a handshake, she awkwardly lifted her arm and continued to face forward. Later, I saw her at the exhibition and noticed that her electric power and CPU were located in an external unit. How long until Moore's Law enables Mr. Ishiguro to embed this unit inside one of his androids?
The robotic Hang Song didn't exactly creep me out, but unfortunately, I think she still falls into the “uncanny valley” that everyone from robot makers to movie animators try to avoid. (This article explains the uncanny valley.) I think the problem is, until a robot appears so real that humans don't realize it's a robot, it's going to seem creepy. We're a long way from that achievement, but I'm glad pioneers like Mr. Ishiguro are working hard to get us there.
Chang-Hwan Lee introduced his company's latest product, the FXMirror. The concept is simple enough: a computer screen acts as a virtual mirror. You can see how you would look in various outfits, without having to change clothes. Here is the company's promotional video for the FXMirror.
Because you can use the FXMirror without changing clothes, it could save you a lot of time in selecting an outfit. And FXMirror makes it easy to share pictures of yourself wearing your new virtual clothing.
Unfortunately, the live demo was buggy. The dresses didn't cover the model's whole body, so her real clothing appeared as a white line along her torso. Her virtual clothes looked cartoon-ish, not three-dimensional. And even if FXGear works these kinks out of its system, will people really buy clothing without being able to feel the fabric on their bodies? Obviously, online shopping already exists, so the reason people still buy clothes in malls is to try on actual clothing. Does this technology improve enough upon old-fashioned mirrors for department stores to justify buying one? I hate to be a naysayer, but this product looks like an expensive gimmick.
Like many other presenters, Rick Bergman opened with some mind-blowing statistics. Currently, 50,000 apps are downloaded from the Apple Store, and 10 million messages are sent on WeChat every minute. Clearly, mobile technology is here to stay, so what does the future look like?
Mr. Bergman laid it out in four phases:
Phase 1 will give us better displays. Smartphones with 4K screen resolution will be here within a few years. So will curved and bendable screens.
Phase 2 is personalization. Your phone will know who you are, and you won't need to memorize lengthy passwords. More sophisticated fingerprint and retina scanners are on the way. Synaptics is a member of the FIDO (Fast IDentity Online) Alliance, which should increase interoperability between devices, allowing users to be identified with fewer passwords. (Here is FIDO's website.)
Phase 3 is contextual awareness. Your phone will have a better understanding of your environment. Augmented Reality will become commonplace.
Phase 4 is omnipresence. Trillions of devices will exist by this point. Mr. Bergman showed a chart that illustrated the exponential decay in the weight of electronic devices. Computers went from taking up whole rooms in the 1950s, to desktops in the '80s, to laptops in the 2000s, to smartphones today. Soon, wearables will become commonplace. By 2040, computers will weigh one gram, the weight of a paperclip. These nano-devices will have all sorts of applications, not only in the environment, but also inside the human body.
Mr. Bergman presented an exciting look into the future. What I'm wondering is, how long until we have nanobots swimming through our bloodstream, seeking out and eliminating cancerous cells and other diseases before we even know they're there?
Travel is one of my biggest passions, so I was especially interested in this discussion. Joost Schreve said that when he traveled in the '90s, he used to carry a guidebook everywhere he went. Then, in the 2000s, internet cafes became the dominant way travelers got information. Nowadays, people travel with smartphones, so they can find reviews on hotels and restaurants using TripAdvisor, from almost everywhere in the world. (I still prefer to get travel advice by talking face-to-face with other human beings, but I'll admit, smartphones are pretty cool.)
William Wang talked about his company and its attempt to displace Uber in China. Actually he pointed out that Uber never had a large market share in the country. They simply ignored China at first, and now they're the underdog. In the last few years, ride-sharing apps have been a disruptive technology worldwide. China is no exception.
For me, the most interesting facet of this discussion wasn't TripAdvisor or AA Car. It was the fact that these two men, who didn't share a common language, could have a discussion, with limited interruption. The bilingual moderator helped, but there were times when Mr. Schreve and Mr. Wang seemed to interact like old pals, even though they couldn't understand each other. The technology that made this possible was not new, and I never heard it discussed at the conference. It was an earpiece that everyone wore, with an unseen person translating in real-time.
What's the future of this technology?
Currently, it's possible for anyone with enough money to hire a translator to follow them around. You could also hire someone who is working from home to translate conversations over the internet. Maybe such a service already exists. How long until a computer can do this, without needing a human middleman? In the not-so-distant future, I could see a computer translator that would make learning a new language unnecessary. I'm passionate about both languages and technology, so this is both a sad and exciting thought.
CEO & Co-Founder
Dippak Khurana gave some more amazing statistics. Last year, 100 million new people began to use the internet in India. There are currently 200 million mobile users in the country. By 2018 that number will balloon to 600 million. Most people in India are being introduced to the internet via smartphones; they have never used a desktop computer. Today, India has 500 million app downloads per month.
My main takeaway from this discussion was that India today is where China was five years ago, in terms of its mobile internet. The market is not yet saturated, so it's a really exciting time to be in India.
Rui Ma mentioned that Facebook isn't accessible in China. She was the first (and only) person at the GMIC I heard bring up this fact. She also reiterated that Uber moved into the Chinese market too late. It is the dominant ride-sharing app in the rest of the world, but in China, it's playing catch-up.
Ms. Ma noted that humans are terrible at predicting the future. This was interesting to hear, considering that her firm, 500 Startups, attempts to do just that. This statement really made me think about all of the GMIC. The entire conference exists to give us a glimpse at future technologies. How many of the things I saw will actually make it into the marketplace?
Another interesting thing that Ms. Ma noted was that Silicon Valley is the least global and least responsive region on the planet. This is simply because the US is huge, and it's already saturated with the latest technologies. Smaller markets are much better at adapting to changing trends. It's an interesting thought, and one that I'm sure guides her in deciding which companies to invest in.
SVP Research & Analysis
App Annie studies trends in the global app economy, and Danielle Levitas gave us an extensive analysis. Google Play gets more downloads than the Apple Store, but the Apple Store makes more money. Apple still is lagging in China, but they are putting in a lot of effort to expand their market share. Currently, there are 21 Apple Stores in the country. By the end of next year, there will be 40.
Hardware and software developers are increasing their focus on China, and it's easy to see why. China's vast population makes the market too lucrative to ignore. China is currently overtaking the US in terms of mobile users and downloads. It will continue to have more users than any other country for the foreseeable future.
As for trends in devices, larger phones are starting to take away some market share from tablets. Therefore, the tablet market will soften in the near future, and wearables will grow. Phones, of course, will dominate.
Finally, Ms. Levitas discussed software. Games have dominated on mobile devices, and this will continue in the future. One surprising stat is that educational software is also growing at 25% per year. This indicates that people are interested in using their phones for more than just fun and games.
I was thoroughly impressed at this year's GMIC. The conference center was huge and modern, and the speakers were amazing. There was a palpable optimism in the air, about China, the world and the future of mobile technology. The one thing I was hoping to hear more of was improvements in battery life (George Zhao excluded). Nowadays, it seems that power banks (those large batteries that can charge phones) are standard for people to lug around all day. I would love to get back to a time when a phone's battery life is measured in days instead of hours.
Much has changed in China over the last decade. It's exciting to witness the country's continuing progress firsthand. The GMIC laid out a wonderful future for China. I can't wait to see what happens next.
More Photos From the Presentations
More Photos From the Convention Center
GMIC Beijing's Website